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Ask Auntie Pinko

February 3, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I'm pretty much a conservative but I read your columns and I find them well grounded in fact, well-reasoned, insightful, blah blah blah - all the good stuff. Sometimes I wonder what you're doing on DU. Anyway, the last column I read of yours was about the Soviet Union. I was a Soviet studies major a hundred years ago in college. I recall the goal - in part - of the Soviet system was to create "the New Soviet Man."

I always laughed at that. Seems to me any system, of government, psychology, or anything else, that requires for its success the complete revision of human nature is, by definition, doomed. Isn't the strength of capitalism and democracy the fact that they not only do not depend on the creation of a "New Soviet Man" for success, but in fact assume human nature as we know it and attempt to weave a social cloth around it? See anything by John Adams, for instance. Okay, that's kinda convoluted and I'm not sure what the question is, but I'd love to see what you have to say about this.

Tom,
Chicago, IL


Dear Tom,

Thanks for the kind words! I'm on Democratic Underground because it's a place that attracts a lot of intelligent, well-read people who like to think and discuss and, yes, argue passionately about things they (and I) care about. I suspect that's what attracted you here, too. Every Internet site that discusses controversial issues has its share of people who like to flame and indulge in hyperbole and see how far they can get away with outrageous assertions, and DU is certainly no exception. But it's also distinguished by many thoughtful and curious and articulate people who feel free to disagree as well as agree with one another.

I think I understand what you're getting at, Tom. Systems that depend on human behavior cannot diverge too drastically from the fundamentals of human nature, if they wish to operate successfully. And I certainly agree with you that attempting to radically alter human nature often limits a system's ability to survive and thrive. And a system that relies entirely on an idealized version of humanity will not long endure.

Nevertheless, Auntie would caution you about a couple of things: The first is the assumption that "capitalism and democracy" are based on an accurate representation of human nature. Capitalism (read Adam Smith) relies on "enlightened self-interest," which is a shorthand way of saying that sometimes one must see that others benefit in order to benefit yourself. As an ideal, this is a neat concept; as a reality, human nature rarely selects "enlightenment" over "self-interest."

As an example, America once had an excellent health care system. Several things contributed to this: health insurance was widely and cheaply available through employers, and the government invested quantities of tax dollars in public health, vaccine research, and subsidizing health care for the indigent. As a result, by the time I was in college, polio was a distant memory, tuberculosis was almost vanishingly rare, childhood epidemics were tightly controlled, and health care providers were able to keep their doors open and ensure a high quality of care.

And we forgot, I think, what it was like before that time. We went for the short-term gains of cutting public health budgets, moving research into the private sector (where it could be concentrated on products to address profitable issues like erectile dysfunction and 'esophageal reflux') and plumping up corporate bottom lines and public budgets by eliminating employee health benefits and restricting health care subsidies for the indigent.

As a result, tuberculosis is back in America's cities. How long before it becomes a raging epidemic? Health care providers are sinking under the costs of absorbing care for the uninsured and underinsured, and the costs for everyone are increasing exponentially as restricted access and increased cost force people to wait until they are desperately ill to seek care. This is the real face of unrestricted free-market capitalism, regardless of the idealistic concept of "enlightened self-interest."

As long as those with wealth and power use that wealth and power to build a dam between themselves and the consequences of unbridled free-market capitalism, the consequences will continue to accumulate and pile up behind that dam. And when it breaks, the flood will destroy everyone.

So capitalism, too, is no more viable in its "pure" form than communism or socialism.

I'm wary of walking into the trap of discussing "democracy," as well. The government described by America's Constitution is not a pure democracy; and indeed, as originally envisioned by the founders was even less "democratic" than today. The limitation of franchise to propertied white males and the indirect method of selecting Senate representation are two elements that have not survived, among many incorporated to limit democratic government in America.

If you're using the term "democracy" as a general shorthand for "systems of government based in some degree upon political self-determination by the citizenry," I tend to agree with you that as a political system, "democracy" appeals strongly to a key aspect of human nature. As such, it provides a fairly stable basis for social organization.

But it can equally be said that in human nature there are contrary elements that are unharmonious with both democracy and capitalism. While the instinct for self-governance is strong in human nature, it is often counterbalanced (especially in times of turmoil, threat, and uncertainty) by an equally strong instinct to follow a strong leader to safety and/or victory, even at the cost of "freedom." And while the self-interest that drives capitalism is a strong element of human nature, this too is counterbalanced by a strong altruistic drive that urges people to build safe communities and look after the well-being of others as well as themselves.

In short, Tom, Auntie Pinko doesn't think human beings will ever devise a system of social/political organization that will perfectly (or even very adequately) reflect human nature, because human nature is a thing of contradictions and variations. All systems are based on appealing to some element(s) of human nature, and they succeed insofar as those elements are in the ascendant. But education (or indoctrination) can only go so far in assuring that ascendancy. Contrariness, external conditions, changing times and values will always erode any system's stability.

It sounds like I am saying that there is no such thing as a truly stable, workable, viable system - and perhaps I am. In my experience, the best strategy is threefold:

First, blend several systems together - control your capitalistic excesses with socialist moderation, temper your authoritarian security with democratic freedoms, create outlets for individual entrepreneurial enterprise in your socialist economy, add a framework of guarantees and limits to your democratic latitude.

Second, remain flexible - be prepared for your system to modify in small, slow increments as conditions demand, and remain constantly vigilant to prevent it from calcifying into rigidity. Particularly where that rigidity ends up serving the interests of a powerful minority of your citizenry!

And third - strive always to have your system raise the bar, just a tiny bit, on human nature. To highlight the aspiration for your citizens to be the best human beings they can be, to nurture the noblest side of human nature, even while tolerantly accommodating those practical ignoble realities that can paradoxically advance the human condition.

I hope that's addressed your interests, Tom, and thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!


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